With only last-minute legal machinations standing between him and an unprecedented recall election, trailing in the polls, his once-brimming treasury depleted and fund-raising harder than before, Governor Gray Davis must turn to less traditional money sources. So it was that, out of public view, Davis invited himself to a private summit meeting of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association (CNIGA) at Santa Barbara’s Biltmore resort on July 2.

Arriving with a decided lack of fanfare, coming and going through a service entrance in the back, the embattled governor made his only appearance of the day, albeit one that did not show up on his public schedule. It was a late addition. CNIGA invited its longtime ally and frequent Davis bête noire, Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, to address the summit but did not invite Davis. But if you are governor of California and it’s important enough, you can invite yourself.

Backed by the tribes in the past, Davis angered them this year by trying to get them to help with the state budget crisis by sharing more revenue from their burgeoning casino operations. With them balking and, alarmingly, talking with recall advocates, Davis backed off. He signaled his acquiescence by attending the opening of a new Morongo casino in the Southern California desert, site of an earlier meeting between Indian casino reps and recall champion Congressman Darrell Issa, in early May, then released the May revision of his budget, which dropped the heavy revenue demands on the tribes.

Recall-campaign coordinator David Gilliard says the Indian casino interests stopped talking with the recall forces right after Davis made his May pilgrimage to the Morongo casino. But Davis may have been alarmed by Bustamante getting center stage at the CNIGA summit. Bustamante was the last of the potential Democratic candidates to say he doesn’t intend to run to replace Davis in a recall election. Many expect that statement not to hold.

In any event, Democratic sources say that Davis is turning to the casino tribes to help defeat the recall. “We’re taking a hard look” at helping fund the drive against the Davis recall, confirms Howard Dickstein, attorney for a half-dozen of the casino tribes.

Although Davis’ ostensible purpose in attending the CNIGA summit was to urge support for his state budget — curious, since he has spoken to few groups around the state in support of his own plan — sources say that renegotiation of state compacts with the tribes was discussed. Citing the need to confer with his lawyers, Davis made no commitments before the group. But he has just come out for a “sacred sites” bill he vetoed last year that would give tribes claim to more lands around the state.

Davis is having trouble raising money from more conventional sources. He has spent nearly all the $78 million he raised for his re-election. The Weekly had made the highest estimate of Davis’ fund-raising, at $70 million, but even that was higher than former Davis consigliere Garry South’s claim at the quadrennial UC Berkeley election recap in January.

Democratic insiders buzz angrily about Davis being taken to the cleaners by signature-gathering firms that sold them on a meaningless counterpetition drive, which not only failed to block or even delay the recall-petition drive, but also wasted more than $1 million on a purported 1.1 million unverified signatures expressing vague support for Davis’ positions, for which gatherers were paid a dollar a head. Davis campaign officials won’t say exactly how much they spent on the effort, which was designed to siphon off enough workers to delay the recall’s qualification. “A complete failure,” a ranking Democratic adviser calls it, “and Gray no longer has that kind of money to burn.”

Indeed, according to Davis spokesman Roger Salazar, the governor has raised only a few hundred thousand for his own campaign committee. And the anti-recall committee, Taxpayers Against the Governor’s Recall, only a few million more.

The latest Davis gambit is to file a lawsuit to stop the counting of signatures because the anti-recall committee says it has grainy videotape purporting to show a few improperly formatted petitions lying around and has produced two signature gatherers who apparently were not properly registered California voters, as required by state law. This is probably more of a delaying tactic, as courts are unlikely to throw out 1.65 million recall signatures.

Meanwhile, another sign of White House support for the recall emerged, with Gilliard telling the Weekly that new state Republican chairman Duf Sundheim is spending a day at recall headquarters to coordinate efforts. Sundheim, a Silicon Valley lawyer, is the handpicked choice of Bush’s California leader, L.A. investor Gerald Parsky.

All this comes as the man who helped the White House by cheering up U.S. troops in Iraq on the Fourth of July, Arnold Schwarzenegger, is on a world tour promoting Terminator 3, which took in $110 million at the U.S. box office in its first two weekends and has already enjoyed near-record openings in Russia and Japan.

Schwarzenegger told the Weekly before departing that he is considering many scenarios as he weighs the timing and substance of his decision. Knowledgeable in the ways of California politics, the action star seems quite amused by all the gamesmanship around the recall. There should be no shortage of humor in the months ahead.

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